Friday, May 6, 2011

Justice or Compassion

Since the election I have been wandering around the internet a bit to see what sorts of things people are saying about the results.  Of course most of the comments out there are the usual partisan talking points and have little enough of interest but I did find some intriguing patterns in the justifications people used for supporting their particular group.  The main thing I saw was that people supporting the Conservatives (right wing) were very often focused on Justice as the overriding reason for doing things and those supporting the NDP (left wing) focused instead on Compassion.  As an example the Conservatives support tough on crime laws that put more people in jail for longer while the NDP lean more towards rehabilitation and programs designed to prevent crime in the first place.  It certainly is just that those that commit crimes pay dearly for doing so and unjust that citizens who do not commit crimes pay for those criminals to receive benefits not available to those who obey the law.  On the flip side it is compassionate to accept that many criminals are not a danger and to try to give them all a chance to reform their behaviour and also to work as hard as possible to give people opportunities to not become criminals in the first place.  As another example right wing parties tend to be against gun control and yet support the harshest penalties for those who end up using those guns on others.

Obviously every society needs some combination of justice and compassion.  We generally don't think that people who speed or embezzle should be shot but we do think that some punishment should be levied against them - we are all searching for a middle ground.  It is a matter of emphasis, of course, a matter of finding the right spot where the punishment is significant enough to deter the crime but not so much that we end up destroying good people's lives for minor mistakes.  As far as I am concerned the trick to finding the optimal approach is to set aside these relatively arbitrary notions of compassion and justice and instead focus on the known effects of specific actions.  We know, for example, that the death penalty is not any greater deterrent to murder than life in prison.  Nobody commits murder calmly weighing the benefit of killing vs. the penalty of a lifetime behind bars.  If the penalty for murder were instead imprisonment for a month though I think there would definitely be murders committed where the murderer honestly decided their actions warranted the punishment.  What is necessary is to evaluate how significant the punishment needs to be such that nobody who actually believes they will be caught would commit murder thoughtfully.  We can't prevent murders of passion anyway so ratcheting up the punishment further is not helpful to prevent them.

That is the sort of thinking that goes on a lot in government bureaucracies but not as much in election campaigns. Calm, rational assessment of cause and effect doesn't make good press and doesn't get people excited about voting.  Invective about injustice and callousness make great headlines though and get people involved.  You can easily see this by looking at the sorts of things the NDP and Conservatives said in their platforms.  The Conservatives emphasized punishing those who are criminals and repeated used the phrase 'law-abiding citizens' to suggest that people who have not yet violated laws should be let alone to do whatever they please.  The NDP on the other hand talked about helping those who needed it and about protecting people who would otherwise be marginalized.  Neither justice nor compassion can be ignored when making laws and decisions but rhetoric based on only one or the other is a poor excuse for an informed, rational choice.

1 comment:

  1. I would probably argue that we can safely ignore justice, but I'll leave that for another day.

    What really bothers me about the path we are about to embark on for enforcement is specifically that it goes against evidence-based and rational decision making. Building mega-prisons and filling them up is just bad policy that only makes sense if you are more interested in the spectacle of punishment than in actually having less crime.